An Attack in/on Togo: Serious, But Not Necessarily A Game-Changer

Reuters:

Eight soldiers were killed and 13 wounded in an attack in northern Togo on Wednesday, the government said, marking potentially the first deadly raid on its territory by Islamist militants who have killed thousands in neighbouring countries.

Before dawn, a group of heavily armed gunmen ambushed an army post in the Kpendjal prefecture near the border with Burkina Faso, the government said in a statement.

The Togolese government’s statement is here.

As the statement mentions, the attack targeted soldiers in a Togolese border security mission called Operation Koundjouare, which was launched in 2018 (the most information I could find about it was here).

Kpendjal (map) is the northwestern-most prefecture in Togo. From Kpendjal, it is almost twice as far to Togo’s capital Lomé as it is from Kpendjal to Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. In other words, this is a remote part of Togo. Notably, an earlier attack in Kpendjal was also reported in the Togolese press in November 2021, also targeting the security forces, although that attack was attributed to “bandits” rather than “terrorists.”

Assuming that one or both of those attacks were by jihadists, that would be worrying – and any attack is worrying, even “just” by bandits. But I think the concerns about the spread of jihadism into the coastal West African countries – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin, and possibly Senegal – need to be right-sized. On the one hand, sporadic attacks can signal the beginning of a more substantial incursion, as areas such as central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso, and western Niger have tragically discovered. There are already credible fears about a jihadist presence in northern Benin, and Cote d’Ivoire has suffered attacks since at least 2020. On the other hand, even in the worst conflict zones of the Sahel (and the Lake Chad Basin), the degradation of insecurity and the onset of multi-sided civil war took considerable time to occur. Moreover, there are serious potentials for self-fulfilling prophecies – counter-jihadist units tend to get attacked by jihadists, government efforts at rooting out cells tend to lead into counterproductive collective punishment, foreign interventions and heated rhetoric tend to turn up the temperature, etc.

Meanwhile, I think one should be hesitant about drawing any connections between national-level politics and what are, ultimately, very local dynamics that are necessary for insurgencies to gain traction. Would Togo appear to be remarkably brittle and potentially full of resentments, having been ruled by the same family since 1967? Definitely. Does that mean that jihadists are going house-to-house in Kpendjal riling up sentiment against President Faure Gnassingbé? I doubt it. I think where jihadists choose targets or see footholds (and sometimes I think they stumble into opportunities rather than seizing them), I don’t think who the head of state is figures largely in their calculations. Or, if one wants to feel very grim, one could say that the majority of the coastal states (with the exception of Ghana and Senegal, in my view) are brittle at the top. But as I mentioned above, it’s a long way from Kpendjal to Lomé.

A Ministerial Security Meeting in Burkina Faso [Updated]

On 16 October, ministers from Benin, Togo, Niger, and Burkina Faso met in Ouagadougou to discuss security issues and cross-border cooperation. In public remarks, attendees stressed the inter-connectedness of their sub-region and the desire for greater collaboration between police, gendarmes, and soldiers. The ministers also met Burkina’s President Roch Kaboré.

Clearly, then, the violence in Burkina Faso’s east has its neighbors worried.

These four countries are already part of different political, economic, and security organizations. All of them are members of the Economic Community of West African States. Niger and Burkina Faso are members of the G5 Sahel, which has its own Joint Force. Those two countries re also members of the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership. Niger and Benin are both members of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (to counter Boko Haram), although Benin is a minor member. There is not, to my knowledge, a formal common framework for these four countries. Perhaps we will see one emerge. [Update: On Twitter, Nicolas Desgrais points out that there is an  intelligence and counter-criminality framework, ratified in April of this year, that groups together these four countries and Cote d’Ivoire.]

I am, in general, a skeptic about the efficacy and prospects of regional approaches to counterterrorism. The MNJTF, I think, has been less integrated than advertised, and the G5 Joint Force has gotten off to a slow and problematic start. With that said, though, more cooperation is obviously better than less. We’ll see where this goes.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wraps Up Africa Tour

China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Chad yesterday, the last stop on a trip that included Zimbabwe, Guinea, Gabon, and Togo. Yang has made three prior journeys to Africa, and this trip reflects China’s continued engagement across the continent. Once again, economic themes dominated the agenda, and Yang ‘s policy statements affirmed China’s willingness to work with African leaders that the West finds controversial and its willingness to do business amidst political turmoil.

In Zimbabwe, Yang met with President Robert Mugabe. Yang “signed an agreement to give Zimbabwe’s government a 50 million- yuan ($7.6 million) grant and called for sanctions against the southern African country to be lifted.”

In Guinea, Yang spoke with President Alpha Conde and announced “two cooperation agreements worth 170 million yuan ($26 million).”

In Gabon, Yang sat down with President Ali Bongo Ondimbaand they pledged closer cooperation in trade, economy and infrastructure.”

In Togo, “Yang and his Togolese counterpart, Elliott Ohin, signed a deal for a six million euro grant in Kara, the ruling party’s home base and native region of longtime leader General Gnassingbe Eyadema, whose son is now president state media said.”

And finally, in Chad economic cooperation also took center stage.

On each stop, then, Yang announced new agreements and urged further cooperation. Many of these countries have already seen huge increases in their trade with China in recent years.

The differences between Chinese and American styles in Africa remain striking. A high-ranking American diplomat who visited countries like Zimbabwe and Gabon, where political turmoil has profoundly shaken the legitimacy of rulers, would have almost certainly concentrated on political themes, urging reform and greater democratization. China’s strategy continues to center on identifying shared interests (unequally shared, some would argue) and building ever-closer relationships with leaders, no matter how controversial those leaders are, based on those ties.